There’s a rise in behavior disruptions in Maine schools this year. It underscores a mental health crisis for kids
Educators across the state expected an adjustment when students returned to school full time this year, with unfamiliar routines and the enduring pandemic. But now, they’re grappling with a rise in behavior challenges, which come as studies show depression and anxiety have doubled for children and teens since before the pandemic.
This week, three leading pediatric health organizations warned that the mental health crisis for kids has become a “national emergency.” And the U.S. Department of Education released a new report, declaring that it “has reached a critical point. The DOE called on schools to use extra pandemic funding to hire more support staff such as social workers and counselors and do away with punitive punishments like suspensions.
“We are seeing a lot more overall disruptive behavior, oppositional behavior in regard to listening and following rules,” said Brooke Proulx, a school social worker at Gorham Middle School, or GMS. “It feels like a free for all, like, here it is all at once. And kids don't have the skills to navigate it.”
During the first month of school, the number of kids sent to the front office for disruptive behavior at GMS increased 33% compared to the same time during the 2019-20 school year, according to data from principal Quinton Donahue. And Proulx said there has been a 73% increase in 504 referrals – when students are referred to her for learning disabilities or persistent academic, learning, or behavioral problems.
The trend is happening across the country, and recent studies have linked mental health and behavioral issues to the chronic stress and trauma of the pandemic. Students have had to change the way they learn, from in person to virtual to hybrid to fully in person again, in a very short period of time. Some have experienced grief or financial insecurity. Plus, there has been tension and confusion around safety protocols. And it all impacts a student’s ability to learn.
“A perfect storm”
“It's been tough,” said Connor Rounds, 13, an eighth grader at GMS. “I did find that doing online work from home actually worked better for me. I got better grades than I probably would have in school. But I think it took a toll on me, like depression and like not being able to see my friends often.”
“I just think our students across the state are just so maxed out at what their mental capacity is right now,” said Paula Callan, president of the Maine Principals Association, and principal of Messalonskee High School in Oakland. “Their routines have changed, and what was normal is no longer there. So they're frustrated. And for some, the way they exhibit that frustration is by, you know, verbally lashing out or exhibiting some type of an aggressive behavior.”
A survey by the Maine School Counselor’s Association, or MESCA, found 85% of school counselors reported more behavior challenges and increased anxiety and stress this fall than previous years.
The behaviors Maine educators have seen range from more frequent classroom outbursts and acting out, to vandalism and stealing.
Educators have also noticed that many students have less stamina for the full school day, and they’re exhausted from being back all day every day.
“It's just weird coming back every day,” said Luke Boudreau, 13, an eighth grader at GMS. He said he’s happy to be back, but he felt his work was more manageable in the hybrid model. “I feel nervous because I feel like everyone else knows everything. And I don't.”
Meanwhile, students are struggling with collaboration skills and managing peer conflicts. Proulx has been helping students with conflict resolution almost daily.
“They are so excited [to be back] and in their brain development, their reward system is lighting up. But there's this lag of skill of, ‘how do I manage these social situations, these social conflicts.’ And there’s this thrill of finally being around peers, and what they've been craving,” Proulx said. “So, it's almost like a perfect storm.”
Educators say that many students seem several grade levels behind in their maturity and social skills.
Because of that, Maria Frankland, a school counselor and guidance director at Narraguagus Jr./Sr. High School in Harrington, said teachers are more focused on reinforcing self-regulation skills and classroom behavioral expectations this year.
“The current seventh graders that are in this building last went to school in this format halfway through grade five,” Frankland said. “And the current ninth graders only went to school in this format halfway through grade seven. Those are really big transitional moments in a student's life under even normal or typical circumstances.”
Hope Barney, 13, an eighth grader at GMS, said she feels like she’s behind.
“In my head, like, I know I'm an eighth grader, but I still kind of feel like a sixth grader in a way because [school] stopped mid sixth grade. And I feel like we were still developing a bunch of those skills that just like, go with sitting still getting your work done,” Barney said.
For elementary students, the gap is even more noticeable. “There's a lot of students that have never been to daycare, they've never been to a pre-K, and then they're coming in here,” said Jeremy Lynch, a school social worker at Saccarappa Elementary School in Westbrook. Because of that, teachers have to focus time on breaking down classroom routines and sometimes re-teaching the basics.
Despite the challenges, most teachers and students say they are happy to be back at school full time, but they say there’s a need to support students through the transition.
“Kids have experienced kind of a collective trauma in many ways,” said Nina D’Aran, principal of Central Elementary School in South Berwick. “You'll never be able to learn to read if you don't feel safe, and you don't know classroom routine.”
“Behaviors are a form of communication”
Research has found that trauma and chronic stress impact a child’s ability to learn, by heightening the “fight or flight” response in the brain, which may cause some students to withdraw from situations all together, and others to act out for seemingly small reasons.
“Anything can really trigger a kid and especially with younger kids to middle school kids, they developmentally just lack the ability to verbalize some of what they are actually thinking and feeling. And so, what they do is they react, they use behaviors. And generally, those behaviors are a form of communication,” says Dr. Peter Kang, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Scarborough.
Research shows that the most effective way to support students who’ve experienced chronic stress and trauma is through trusting relationships, which provide stability, consistency, and connection. That's where school and educators come in.
Statewide, the Maine Department of Education has put an emphasis on providing this kind of support. With millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan, the state has set aside funds to address student mental health needs, focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), trauma-informed practices, and restorative alternatives to discipline.
Many districts have incorporated social and emotional learning curriculum in their schools, which integrates emotional self-awareness and interpersonal relationship building skills into learning. Others have hired more social workers and school counselors using the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER funds. A number of schools, including GMS, have invested in training on trauma-informed practices to help staff learn to respond to the root cause of behaviors and create more supportive classroom environments.
Across the state, schools are also shifting their discipline to restorative practices and community-building to help students and educators repair conflicts and harm. In Readfield, Maranacook Community Middle School has used restorative practices for years, but dean of students Rick Sirois said it has been more important than ever this year.
“One of my favorite statements from restorative practices is ‘separate the deed from the doer.’ So it's [recognizing] you made a bad choice, but you're not a bad person, and giving value to that individual and making them still feel a part of that community,” Sirois said.
Despite these efforts, significant challenges remain. There has long been a shortage of school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers.
“There are not enough school counselors in the state of Maine right now. And we have inquiries from principals all the time looking for more school counselors, asking is there any way that MESCA could support finding a school counselor for a school,” said Kelly Weaver, a school counselor in Hampden and board chair of MESCA.
There’s also a shortage of mental health service providers for school counselors to refer children to, making school-based support more critical, while also putting a higher burden on already burnt out and short-staffed schools.
“When a student is on a waiting list for a mental health counselor, it sometimes by default falls to school counselors to just kind of like, keep things going until help can be found,” Weaver said.
However, many educators are hopeful that if anything, the pandemic has highlighted how essential these supports are for students, and that continued investment in them will become more of a priority in the future.
“I think that giving social and emotional learning the same emphasis that we give academics and test scores would be really transformative,” Weaver said. “To see that not be a side note to education, but instead be the main course in education, would be transformative and innovative for the state of Maine and its educational system.”